Home Career White representatives vote to create an all-white court in America’s blackest city

White representatives vote to create an all-white court in America’s blackest city


Mississippi’s white supermajority House of Representatives voted after four-plus hours of intense debate to create a separate court system and an expanded police force in Jackson, America’s blackest city, to be appointed by all-white state officials.

If House Bill 1020 will become law later this session, the Mississippi Supreme Court’s white chief justice will appoint two judges to oversee a new district in the city — one that includes all of the city’s majority-white neighborhoods, among other areas. The white state’s attorney general appointed four prosecutors, a court clerk and four public defenders for the new district. A white state public safety commissioner would oversee the expanded Capitol Police force, which is now led by a white chief.

Appointments of state officials will be made instead of judges and prosecutors being elected by local residents of Jackson and Hinds counties – as is the case in every other municipality and county in the state.

Mississippi’s capital city is 80% black and has a higher percentage of black residents than any major American city. Mississippi’s legislature is completely controlled by white Republicans who have redrawn districts over the past 30 years to ensure they can pass any bill without a single Democratic vote. Every legislative Republican is white, and most Democrats are black.

After a thorough and heated disagreement with black members of the House of Representatives, the bill passed Tuesday 76-38 largely along party lines. Two black members of the House — Reps. Cedric Burnett, D-Tunica, and Angela Cockerham, D-Magnolia, an independent — voted for the measure. All but one legislator representing the city of Jackson — white Rep. Shanda Yates — opposed the bill.

“Only in Mississippi are we going to have a bill like this … where we say the solution to the problem requires eliminating the black vote,” said Rep. Ed Blackman, D-Canton, while asking his colleagues to oppose the measure.

READ MORE: Hinds County forces unite against bill to create unelected judicial district and expand police force

For much of the debate, Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, who has been publicly rebuked by the white Republicans who lead the Legislature, watched from the gallery on the House floor. Lumumba blamed the legislature earlier this year Practicing “plantation politics” in terms of the treatment of Jackson and the bill that was passed on Tuesday, he said: “It reminds me of apartheid.”

Hinds County Judge Adrienne Wooten, who served in the House before being elected as a judge and would be one of the existing judges to lose jurisdiction under the House proposal, also watched the debate.

Public Safety Commissioner Sean Tyndall, who oversees the Capitol Police, watched part of the debate from the House gallery, smiling at times as Democrats made heated comments about the bill. Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, the state’s only elected official who owns a home in Jackson, took to the House floor shortly before the final vote.

Representative Blackmon, a civil rights leader with a long history of advocacy on voting issues, likened the current legislation to the 1890 Jim Crow-era Constitution, which was written to disenfranchise black Mississippians.

“It’s like the 1890 Constitution all over again,” Blackman said from the floor. “We’re doing exactly what they said they were doing back then: ‘Helping these people because they can’t manage themselves.’

The bill is authored by Rep. Trey Lamar, a Republican whose hometown of Senatobia is 172 miles north of Jackson. It was referred to Lamar’s committee by Speaker Philip Gunn instead of the House Judiciary Committee, where similar legislation is usually considered.

“This bill is designed to make our capital, Jackson, Mississippi, a safer place,” Lamar said, citing multiple news sources that have covered Jackson’s high crime rate. Addressing the long backlog in Hinds County’s courts, Lamar said the bill was designed to “not interfere with the (Hinds County) court system.”

“My constituents want to feel safe when they come here,” Lamar said, adding that the capital belongs to all citizens of the state. “I’m coming forward with this bill to help the citizens of Jackson County and Hinds County.”

Many House members representing Jackson said Tuesday that House leadership never consulted them about the bill. They noted several times during the debate that Republican leaders have never proposed increasing the number of elected judges to handle the backlog or increasing state funding to help the overburdened Jackson Police Department.

In previous sessions, the Legislature created the Capitol Complex Improvement District, which encompasses much of downtown, including the state government office complex and other areas of Jackson. The bill would extend the existing district south to Highway 80, north to County Line Road, west to State Street and east to the Pearl River. From 40 to 50 thousand people live in the district.

Opponents of the law, dozens of whom protested outside the Capitol for several days this year, accused the authors of singling out mostly white, affluent areas of the city to be housed in the new district.

The bill would double the district’s funding to $20 million to increase the size the existing Capitol Policewho has been widely criticized by Jacksonians for shooting several people without bringing them to justice in recent months.

The new court system outlined in House Bill 1020 is estimated to cost $1.6 million annually.

House Democrats said the Legislature could increase the number of elected judges in Hinds County if they want to help solve the crime problem. Hinds County was assigned four judges in 1992, when a major redistricting occurred, and that number hasn’t increased since then, even as the four-judge caseload has increased, Blackmon said.

In addition, Blackmon said the number of assistant prosecutors could be increased in Hinds County. In Lamar’s bill, cases in the district would be prosecuted by attorneys in the office of Attorney General Lynn Fitch, who is white.

Blackmon said the bill is “about land grabbing,” not crime fighting. Other municipalities in the state have higher crime rates than Jackson, he said. Blackman asked why the bill would give appointed judges the authority to hear civil cases that have nothing to do with criminal matters.

“When Jackson becomes the No. 1 place for homicides, we have a problem,” Lamar responded, highlighting the city’s high caseload. Several Democrats pointed out during the debate that the Mississippi State Crime Lab also has a large backlog, making it difficult to close cases in Hinds County.

Lamar said the Mississippi Constitution gives the Legislature the power to create “inferior courts,” as it would in a Capitol complex system. Decisions of assigned judges may be appealed to the Hinds County Circuit Court.

Democrats proposed seven amendments, including one to make judges elective. All were defeated primarily on partisan and racial lines.

“We are not incompetent,” said Rep. Chris Bell, Jackson’s department. “Our judges are not incompetent.”

An amendment offered by Rep. Sheikh Taylor of Starkville requiring Capitol Police to wear body cameras was approved. Lamar expressed support for the amendment.

Much of the debate centered around the question of creating a court in which the black majority in Hinds County would not be eligible to vote for judges.

One amendment that was defeated required that appointed judges come from Hinds County. Lamar said allowing judges to come from areas other than Hinds County ensures that the “best and brightest” can serve. Black lawmakers said the comment implied that its judges and other court officials could not be found among Hinds County’s black population.

Asked why he can’t add more elected judges to Hinds County instead of appointing judges to a new district, Lamar said, “It’s a bill that’s being considered by the body.”

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